Corruption Scandals, Fugitives and On-Set Strife: How History Caught Up With ‘Emancipation’ Producer Joey McFarland
Will Smith was supposed to be the most controversial element of Emancipation, Apple TV+’s big-budget epic from director Antoine Fuqua chronicling an enslaved man’s bid for freedom in 1860s Louisiana. Apple TV+ raised eyebrows by choosing to release its record-breaking acquisition — the streamer paid a reported $105 million for the drama during Cannes’ virtual market in 2020 — in early December, just nine months after Smith infamously slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars (and Smith’s subsequent 10-year ban from the ceremony).
With all eyes on whether the film could help rehabilitate Smith’s image after the slap, Emancipation producer Joey McFarland managed to deflect some of the attention away from the film’s lead star at a red carpet premiere in November, when he proudly brandished what he claimed to be the original print of the haunting photo that inspired the movie.
Revealing the famed 1863 image known as The Scourged Back — showing a man with welts and scars across his back, a picture that helped expose the atrocities of slavery during the Civil War — McFarland explained that he had taken it “upon [himself] to build and curate a collection” of photos of 19th century African Americans. The online reaction was swift and fierce.
“Why do you own the photograph? Why did you bring it to a movie premiere if the intent is to preserve it respectfully?” asked The Black List founder Franklin Leonard, who also questioned why McFarland — a white man from Kentucky — collected “slave memorabilia” and why it wasn’t already in a museum. Meanwhile April Reign, who is behind the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, noted with disgust that McFarland had “branded his newly acquired photos of enslaved people” using the hashtag #McFarlandCollection on Instagram. Leonard suggested that the producer may have taken the print to the red carpet simply to bump up its value.
While probably not what McFarland expected when he brought forth his treasured acquisition from his jacket pocket for the cameras (he posted a statement two days later in which he “apologized to everyone I have offended”), the uproar isn’t the only controversy to have cast a cloud over the producer. In fact, the 50-year-old’s relatively short career in the industry — just more than a decade long — has been almost entirely overshadowed by scandal, featuring extensive links to a fugitive accused of being the mastermind behind the multibillion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal, considered the largest money laundering operation in history and one that led to the Department of Justice’s biggest forfeiture claim on record.
McFarland’s red carpet incident isn’t even his only controversy connected to Emancipation.
According to multiple sources, the producer was asked to leave the set of the film nearly halfway into the shoot after what THR hears was disruptive behavior with crewmembers and dissension with several above- and below-the-line people.
McFarland asserted on the red carpet — where he described himself as a “filmmaker, writer, amateur historian and passionate curator of truth” — that his print of The Scourged Back was the “original,” something experts have questioned given the number of duplicates in existence. “He can’t say this is the only one out there — there are many other known prints,” Thomas Harris, a New York-based collector and dealer specializing in “cartes de visite” photos (small, card-mounted albumen prints from a glass plate negative) from that era, notes to THR (one print apparently recently sold for $32,500). But whether his was the original, McFarland claimed that he sought to discover the identity and journey of Peter, the individual photographed in 1863. In a 2020 article in the Louisville Courier Journal, he discussed the “intense research” he put into the subject, working with experts to slowly piece together the story of Peter and his escape from enslavement, an account that would eventually lead to Bill Collage’s script for Emancipation.
But despite this seemingly vital role in Emancipation‘s early development, people closely connected to the film tell THR that, on set, McFarland repeatedly went beyond his station, making demands and suggestions outside of the chain of command that led to disruption and created friction with those around him. Eventually, it reached a point where he was asked not to return, with director Fuqua said to have made the final call. (McFarland’s reps declined to comment on the situation, and Fuqua did not respond to a request for comment.)
It should be noted that, while he is the first named producer in the credits (coming after Fuqua and Collage), McFarland’s name — unlike those of fellow producers Todd Black, Smith and Jon Mone — does not come with the PGA mark, given by the Producers Guild Association to those who they determine have “performed a majority of the producing functions on a specific motion picture in a decision-making capacity.”
THR understands that McFarland appealed the decision of the guild — which gathers evidence seen by a panel as part of its review process as to who should get the mark — but his bid ultimately fell short.
The PGA says it won’t comment on or confirm disputes, while Apple TV+ declined to talk to THR for this article. Despite repeated requests for him to offer his side of what happened, McFarland also declined to comment.
Aside from his quotes at the premiere and in his hometown paper, McFarland has actually barely talked to the media in nearly 10 years, not since his dramatic breakout as the co-producer of 2013’s Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street (which he would follow with the comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To in 2014, the Mark Wahlberg-Will Ferrell comedy Daddy’s Home in 2015 and the 2017 remake of Papillon, starring Charlie Hunnam). But for those who have been keeping an eye on the producer’s career since Wolf, another comment he made on the Emancipation red carpet may have caught their attention.
Speaking to THR at the premiere about his collection of 19th century photographs, of which he said The Scourged Back was the one that “meant the most,” McFarland explained that he’d been “seeking out and acquiring” as many lost and forgotten prints from this era for the “last couple of decades.”
This timeline means McFarland already had started his collection when in 2009 he befriended Jho Low, the flamboyant Malaysian businessman alleged to be behind a now infamous corruption scandal in which billions of dollars were siphoned from his country’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund and spent in extravagant style around the world, most notably on parties, property in the U.S. and forays into Hollywood (there is no evidence to suggest the photo displayed on the red carpet was purchased with money from Low or stolen 1MDB funds).
Low became extremely close with McFarland — who it should be noted has never been charged with any crime — and for a period housed the producer in his Time Warner Center penthouse in New York (bought in 2011 with $30.6 million of 1MDB-linked money). Low is now a fugitive, thought to be living in China and wanted by international authorities. Both Low’s private jet and his superyacht Equanimity — which McFarland enjoyed the use of on numerous occasions — have been seized (in 2019, Equanimity was sold by the Malaysian government for $129 million to recoup some of the stolen money).
Before meeting Low, McFarland had zero film credits to his name and had been working as a talent booker for Paris Hilton (whom the Malaysian had paid to attend his parties and had lavished with gifts). But it wasn’t too long before McFarland was co-founding Red Granite Productions with Low’s associate Riza Aziz in 2011 and producing the 2013 smash The Wolf of Wall Street, all with the backing of millions Low had allegedly stolen. Aziz, the stepson of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (now in prison for his part in the scandal), is currently being sued in his home country in relation to nearly $250 million that found its way into his Red Granite bank accounts (Aziz has denied the funds were linked to the corruption scandal).
McFarland’s red carpet comments to THR also suggest that his pursuit of 19th century prints coincided with the same time frame during which he used accounts linked to Low — subsequently found to have been filled with hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly stolen by the Malaysian — to fund splashy purchases of artwork and original movie posters, plus champagne-buying sprees at parties. In 2016, the Justice Department detailed McFarland’s spending in its record-breaking civil complaint that charged Red Granite with participating in an “international conspiracy to launder money” and which saw the Feds look to seize the rights to The Wolf of Wall Street and, later, both Dumb and Dumber To and Daddy’s Home, as part of its $1.6 billion forfeiture claim of assets.
In 2018 — the same year McFarland established McFarland Entertainment, which he used to produce Emancipation — Red Granite paid $60 million to settle its case with the Feds, while in 2019, McFarland voluntarily handed over nearly $14 million in company profits and gifts, including paintings by Basquiat and Ed Ruscha, and 16 movie posters, including one for Fritz Lang’s 1932 classic M, as well as several luxury watches.
It’s important to note again that McFarland was never charged with any crime and there’s no evidence to suggest he had any role in the alleged corruption. In court filings from 2019, his attorneys stressed that he had no knowledge that any funding or gifts were financed by fraudulently acquired money, and reps for Red Granite had previously repeatedly argued that “to its knowledge,” none of its funding was illegitimate. Indeed, Low was known to have kept his cards very close to his chest when it came to explaining the true source of the fortune he was lavishly splashing on his friends.
But there’s also absolutely no question that McFarland’s entire career was built on the back of Low’s alleged crimes.
“It’s very hard to break into the upper echelons of producing in Hollywood, and there’s no easier way than having access to a huge pot of money. And that’s essentially what happened to him,” notes Bradley Hope, co-founder of podcast studio Project Brazen and a former Wall Street Journal reporter who — together with Tom Wright — broke many of the stories about 1MDB. The two would later co-author Billion Dollar Whale, detailing the various aspects of the scandal and high-spending activities of the figures involved.
In Low, McFarland found someone able to bankroll his filmmaking ambitions, and other, more indie titles in a prolific run at Red Granite between 2011 and 2015 would include the Jon Hamm-Kristen Wiig-starring comedy Friends With Kids; Alexandre Aja’s supernatural feature Horns, with Daniel Radcliffe; and the Christian Bale-led drama Out of the Furnace. Emancipation actually marks McFarland’s first film since Papillon, which was produced by Red Granite but released after the corruption scandal had become public knowledge and the production company’s subsequent demise.
“It’s like a classic Hollywood story,” notes Hope. “A guy who was essentially a hanger-on with a celebrity meets a mysterious, rich Malaysian and then is catapulted into the higher ranks of film production.”
Alongside the film financing, almost all the details about McFarland’s more freewheeling use of Low’s allegedly ill-gotten millions — whether it was to bid on pieces of art at auctions in New York or take part in gambling trips to the Venetian casino in Las Vegas — are well documented by the DOJ. In fact, in its 2016 filing against Red Granite, it showed emails in which McFarland claimed that he was “obsessing” about growing a library of rare and very expensive movie posters, with the producer messaging Aziz and the owner of movie memorabilia company Cinema Archives with a list of posters, joking that he and Aziz were both “such neurotic obsessive creatives” and declaring “WE HAVE TO OWN THEM ALL.” (Aziz would spend more than $4.2 million from his Red Granite account at Cinema Archives, gifting several posters to McFarland.)
Interestingly, McFarland’s Wikipedia entry is very light on references to Red Granite or the corruption scandal, mentioning once that he was “vice chairman of Red Granite Pictures” and containing a solitary line about the 1MDB scandal that notes how in 2019 he “voluntarily” surrendered “luxury goods” traced to stolen funds. Low doesn’t appear at all, his name (and mentions of his ties to McFarland) having been removed in edits made in 2020.
This apparent attempt to redefine and clean up McFarland’s backstory ties in with efforts that were made in 2018 to minimize his involvement and stature at Red Granite, downplaying his role there. However, numerous close sources have asserted that McFarland actually was very much the man in charge at the company, with Aziz largely taking a back seat (“He spent most of his time sitting in his office watching tennis,” says one).
Unfortunately for McFarland, his activity on the Emancipation red carpet with the Scourged Back photo may have undermined plans for him to break free from his scandal-tainted past and start fresh. As has become standard, the uproar saw numerous social media users immediately scour the web, digging up old stories, with his 1MDB and Low ties detailed in subsequent articles.
And news of the discord and dissension during filming of Emancipation that saw McFarland being asked to leave the set of his own film may not help his producing aspirations should another big feature idea come his way.
But of course, had Emancipation generated the type of awards buzz that Apple was clearly hoping for with the December release, all of this might have been happily forgotten by a fickle industry willing to brush aside the controversies — as driven by Smith or, indeed, Emancipation‘s producer. After all, McFarland has already made one impressive comeback, returning just half a decade after his links to the biggest corruption scandal in history were laid bare and with an A-list movie that became the largest film festival acquisition of all time.
As one producer notes, “Yeah, welcome to Hollywood.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.